Mondo DC

Garage D'Art: Johnston's Garage in Merrifield, VA

by Jeff Bagato

photo by Jeff Bagato

    {click photo for Johnston's Gallery}

If I'm lucky, the light will turn red for me at the corner of Gallows Road and Lee Highway in Merrifield, Virginia. I love revisiting the lawn ornaments and primitive thrift store paintings on the old building sprawling on the southeast corner.

There's the lawn jockey pointing the way to the Beltway exit, the rooster weather vane, or the naive painting of a blacksmith handing a little girl a newly made wagon wheel. I no longer have to look at the sign above the sprawl of painting bays and the maze of skinned and dented cars on its impossibly tiny front lot to know that I'm at Johnston's Auto Paint and Body Works. Then the light changes, and the traffic carries me away.

Edward Johnston, Sr., bought the building in 1963 and began sprinkling it with objects around 1972. There's the pair of cement lions guarding the front porch, a decayed bull head, an eagle roughly carved from a log, and four Cavaliers, in red and blue, protecting the rear corners of the building with broken swords from peaked balustrades. Although he passed away in August 1996, many of the original decorations remain, neglected but impassive observers of the busy scenes of the business and the roadway.

The paintings were commissioned by Johnston from shopworker Kena Ruffner in the earlier days of the decorating. These paintings include: A wooden cutout of a four horse-drawn covered wagon crosses a spray-painted desert while two cutout Indians watch from a painted hill; a cutout Indian shoots a wooden buffalo with an arrow from horseback, painted volcanoes rising in the background; cutouts of four soldiers on horseback rope a bear with real string in a painted forest. 

"He had everybody working on this place," Marty Turner tells me. Marty's a veteran of over thirty years at the shop who clearly relishes his surroundings; I often see him working on the roadside lot and waving at passing cars. "They make you as crazy as this place," he says playfully of the decorations. "Mr. Johnston just wanted to make it look different." 

"I've always liked toys, animals, decorations since I was a kid," Johnston told me once when I sought him out to learn more about his homemade monument. He recalled one Christmas when he was twelve and no one in his neighborhood could afford Christmas presents. "I went to this warehouse that had a lot of toys. They'd left the back door open and I filled a bag with toys. It allowed me to play Santa for all the kids." This knack for giving and entertaining came back to him once he settled on this location. "I just put up whatever stuck in my mind," he said. "They say 'Once a man, twice a child.'"

Johnston also reminisced about his past as a moonshine runner, making trips between Richmond, VA, and Washington, DC, to sell bottles of cornpone for a buck a piece. He clearly had lived more than a few adventures, and was very used to making his own way in life.


Johnston's son, Edward, Jr., who has managed the shop since his father's retirement in 1990, recalls a more studious approach to the ornamentation. "He used to look at all kinds of architecture books and if he decided he liked a certain thing, it went up," he says, referring to the rippling stone wall beside the front bay and a since disassembled waterwheel. "He pretty much did it himself. He did what he felt like doing."

Many figures and several larger features have been lost to weather and road construction. When Gallows Road was widened in 1970, the lot was reduced by 600 square feet, which meant the waterwheel and a heavily decorated front porch had to go. 

Items blown over or broken in storms have been removed and not replaced because planned expansion of Lee Highway in the early 90s put the entire building in jeopardy. "They're still talking but were still here," Johnston, Jr., said in 2001. "We put a new roof on and did a little painting here and there. But we haven't done anything with the decorations. All that stuff costs money and time. We've wanted to make money more than that."

The sad truth is that the artwork and the building are decaying, and every year there are fewer items up on the building. When a version of this article appeared in The Washington Post, a woman called me to tell me about how she had sent photographys to the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum in Williamsburg, Virginia, and they had declined taking action to preserve the paintings, citing their poor state of preservation. At the end of 2001, the paintings were removed so that repairs could be made to the building, and Johnston, Jr, promised me they woud be back up--and they have slowly started to reappear. But Johnston, Jr., has no plans to remove the decorations deliberately: "As it gets old and deteriorates we take it down so nobody gets hurt. I'm not interested in taking anything down and selling it or giving it away."

It's a good thing. An awful lot of people stop at those lights.

Johnstons Auto Paint and Body Works, 8137 Lee Highway, Merrifield, Virginia. (703) 560-1226. 

[Slightly different versions of this article appeared in The Washington Post, Sunday June 24, 2001, andThe Washington Post Magazine, October 9, 1994. A version of this article appeared in MOLE #9 with 21 photographs.]